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A second act for the Grange
Thursday, March 09, 2006
GRESHAM -- When the lights come up on the Gresham Little Theater's stage, the oldest Grange hall in Oregon is transported to Broadway or the mythic time of Grimm's fairy tales.
In a mutually beneficial stroke of luck, Multnomah County Grange 71 has become an unofficial arts center in east county: The theater has found a home, and the Grange has avoided the fate of 171 other Oregon Granges that have closed since 1940.
Five years ago, Grange 71 at 30639 S.E. Bluff Road faced an uncertain future. Membership had dwindled to six. The cavernous hall built in 1909 was slipping into decay -- or as the Grange master says, "When it rains outside, it rains inside." Even the younger Grange members were past retirement age.
One summer night while visiting Main City Park, grange secretary Marjorie Sander noticed people rehearsing a play.
Sander walked up to the director and asked, "What are you doing?"
Her question startled Michele Brouse Peoples, an actor who'd appeared off Broadway and who wanted to concentrate on rehearsal. She shot back, "Why, do you have a place for us to perform?"
Sander answered yes.
"Within two days, we were out there looking at the Grange, and we haven't left," Brouse Peoples said.
Through the partnership, the Grange added new members from the theater volunteers, including Brouse Peoples, the Grange master.
"Whoever has money in their coffers takes care of the bills," Brouse Peoples said, "because one doesn't survive without the other."
Grange 71 shifted its mission from farming to community activities, which is what the growing suburbs around it want.
"In the beginning, they were saying, 'What are we doing here? This used to be our agricultural center, and now we're not doing that anymore,' " Brouse Peoples said.
The theater always had operated on a shoestring and needed the Grange's help. Last spring, budget pressures prompted the city of Gresham to eliminate its recreation program, including Brouse Peoples' job, which had allowed her to develop the theater.
Suddenly, the theater was without its paid director. The talk was it would close.
Around Sander's kitchen table -- where Grange members had evolved into the roundtable that guides the theater -- everyone agreed the show must go on.
Rentals for use of the Grange expanded from bluegrass shows that draw upward of 200 people to belly dancers, juggling groups and the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District.
Brouse Peoples also has found businesses willing to donate supplies and labor to replace the roof, the crumbling siding and the 1940s plumbing.
The theater will produce "Robin Hood: A Very Funny Musical" this month and "The Foreigner," a comedy, in May.
Last week, Jeff Puukka, director and playwright, waited in the Grange's lobby for a performance of "The Tower-Maiden's Daughter," his play about the daughter of Rapunzel, the fairy tale heroine. Theatergoers milled around discussing the steep ascent of the neighborhood's real estate prices and development on land where some of them used to live.
"I remember someone coming up to me after my first production here, saying, 'This is Greek theater, and this is a Grange hall. It doesn't match up, but it works,' " Puukka said.
Puukka, the director of the Gresham-based Discover Theatre Lab, was a student at Sam Barlow High School when he met Brouse Peoples eight years ago. He complained to her, "No one is going to give a 16-year-old space to put on a play."
To his amazement, she did.
The Little Theater's aim is to encourage people and promote creativity, Brouse Peoples said.
For Sander, community theater isn't that different from the Grange's roots.
Sander remembers stories of her great-grandmother playing honky-tonk tunes on Grange 71's piano while her long hair swung on the floor. Bluegrass, Brouse Peoples said, always has been played in the Grange, though in years past it was accompanied by square dancing.
Granges elsewhere also are transforming themselves.
"In the old days," said Martha Bachler, a longtime Grange 71 member, "people had their church, their Grange and their lodge." Now Granges must evolve to survive, she said.
One dramatic step was taken by the Long Tom Grange in Junction City, which for two years published calendars of nude members discreetly covered by garden implements.
"The state Grange didn't much care for it," Bachler said, but the local Grange "donated so much money and gained so many new members that in the end, no one complained."